A new 'Cinderella Law' is being considered by the Government, it was announced this week. If the legislation is passed, it will mean up to 10 years in jail for any parent or carer who harms a child's "emotional, social or behavioural development."
So is this a good thing or will it turn every parent into a suspect?
This may sound surprising, but emotional abuse has been found to be more damaging to children than both physical and sexual abuse. In reality, of course, they often to go together, but the fact remains that all the research shows it's the emotional abuse of children which tends to have the biggest (yet often the most underestimated) long-term impact.
It's for this reason that the Government is considering a proposed change to neglect laws in England and Wales that would see parents who deny their children affection face prosecution for the first time.
As it stands, such parents often get away scot-free, while their kids face lifelong consequences.
The charity Action for Children has long been campaigning for this 'Cinderella Law', claiming it would be a monumental step forward for thousands of children, who are known to suffer from emotional abuse and countless others whose desperate situations have yet to come to light.
"I've met children who have been scapegoated in their families, constantly humiliated and made to feel unloved. The impact is devastating and can lead to life-long mental health problems and, in some cases, suicide," says Action for Children's chief executive, Sir Tony Hawkhead.
"We are one of the last countries in the western world to recognise all forms of child abuse as a crime. Years of campaigning have been rewarded – the Government has listened and this law will change lives."
The list of examples of potentially harmful non-physical abuse is long. It includes ignoring a child's presence, failing to stimulate a child, isolating them, belittling them, rejecting them and corrupting them into criminal or anti-social behaviour.
Psychologist Oliver James is all for the new law too. "One study found that the emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to be schizophrenic than the general population, compared with six times for the physically abused and twice as likely for the sexually abused," he says.
The worst affected children are those where both parents emotionally abuse them, with one piece of research showing that over a third of adolescents became schizophrenic if both parents were hostile, critical and intrusive, compared with none where only one parent was or neither were.
Less extreme emotional distress has been shown to be damaging too. In one study, which followed 180 children from infancy to the age of 18, 90% of those who suffered early maltreatment qualified for a mental illness.What's more, the younger the child, the more impact the abuse has, with this study showing that emotional neglect under the age of two was a critical predictor.
The new law – and this is important - isn't about widening the net and creating new definitions of emotional abuse. It's about making the net stronger so that parents and carers who are inflicting harm on their children, will no longer be able to dodge the law.
"The law, as it currently stands in England and Wales, was written in 1933, at a time when neglect was understood as children who haven't been washed or fed - in other words, physical neglect," explains Alan Wardle, head of public affairs at the NSPCC.
"There was no understanding, as there is now, of the real harm that emotional neglect and abuse can cause to children – the kind of harm social workers see all the time. Today, however, we have a much clearer understanding of what children need for their brains to develop properly and this law simply plugs that gap. Almost every other country has plugged it with this law and we need to catch up."
It's not as if parents will be prosecuted for simply being nasty to their children, says Wardle.
"Nobody is expecting the courtrooms to be flooded. The threshold for criminal prosecutions will be significant harm and it will have to be proven to a standard beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law. It's not just a case of, 'My mum didn't hug me this morning.'"
But others aren't so sure. Among them is family care activist Erin Pizzey, who believes the new law could turn every parent into a suspect.
"We have reached a tipping point," she wrote in the Daily Mail this week. "If this extraordinarily dangerous piece of legislation is passed, all parents in Britain effectively become suspects in the eyes of the authorities looking out for those deemed not to love their children enough."
Pizzey doesn't even accept the figures by Action for Children, which claim that of the 11.7 million young people in this country, 10 per cent are suffering neglect. "This figure suggests that more than a million children are unloved. Personally, I simply do not believe such a high figure. But imagine how much higher it would climb if you added in every case of a parent supposedly harming a child's 'intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development' through lack of love, as the new legislation suggests?"
It's not as if it would be feasible to prosecute in most cases, she adds. As tragic cases from Victoria Climbie to Baby P so horribly prove, it's hard enough for social services to identify and prevent physical abuse.
"Is it not obvious to anyone that 'emotional cruelty'' is a concept so nebulous it would be impossible to pin down?"
Above all, says Pizzey, the law ignores the fact that the parents who are most likely to cause emotional cruelty need support, not prosecution. Indeed, many of these parents have themelves been in state care and simply don't know how to parent. The nanny state has gone mad, she believes, urging families to put a stop to it.
But the NSPCC insists the new law wouldn't be an alternative to support. "We shouldn't get fixated on the new law being a solution. The solution lies in getting everyone from primary schools to GPs to pick up children who are at risk of suffering or who are in the early stages to prevent it escalating. The law is a last resort, a back stop for parents who have wilfully and repeatedly failed to protect their children," says Wardle.
Nobody would argue against the current law which states that it is an offence to physically abuse a child. This law would simply ensure that emotional neglect and abuse, which modern science now shows can be equally as destructive to a child's wellbeing, is also against the law.
What do you think?
An essential update to the child neglect law or potentially too elastic and vague to protect vulnerable children?
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